Adrian and Jodi Roelands, Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2016, established Roelands Plant Farms Inc., a propagation greenhouse, in 2013. Since then, they’ve doubled their capacity and were set to triple it by the end of October 2016.
On their farm near Forest, in southwestern Ontario, the couple custom grow premium cucumber, tomato and pepper seedlings for sale to vegetable production greenhouses. Roelands Plant Farms is one of only seven such operations in North America.
Greenhouse producers, in need of new seedlings contact them. “We do their planting,” says Jodi during a telephone interview. “They tell us exactly what plant specifications they want; there are a lot of different varieties, lots of technical differences. They purchase the seed and have it shipped to us. The seeding day is set a given number of days prior to when seedlings need to be delivered. Plant care depends on what they want and the specs they request.”
Computer technology figures heavily into Roelands operation. The entire facility is monitored, including all aspects of greenhouse climate such as heat, humidity and irrigation. The greenhouse management software, accessible from their computer and smart phones, sends an alarm if there’s any operational change or change in climate conditions inside the greenhouse.
With a large staff, the Roelands have adopted a labour management program that monitors all activities and keeps track of the number of times certain tasks are performed, simplifying piece-rate payments and bonuses.
At the same time, making use of the increasing automation enables them as growers to produce high quality vegetables while keeping costs competitive.
The greenhouse operators expected to have 12 acres of growing space functioning by late October. They’ve also purchased a better, and more modern seeding machine and other equipment that will enable them to automate certain jobs such as placing sticks in plant pots.
Changing management roles
One challenge the couple has faced during their business life is regular shifting of their own job descriptions with the changing needs of the company.
When they first went into business Jodi took care of finances and administration. She did the hiring, payroll, wrote policies and handled all accounting. Adrian looked after general management, growing of the crop and daily organization of labour.
But, as the business has grown they’ve hired other professionals to take over most of those tasks. The Roelands have handed over middle management duties and moved themselves into overseeing positions.
“It’s been quite a mind shift for us,” says Jodi. “We both come from farms where you get in there alongside your staff and do the work. But we’re learning that it’s imperative for this size of the company to not to be the person on the forklift, but to delegate that job and work on the bigger picture.”
The Roelands believe the “distance” in job responsibilities is crucial to the welfare of the business. “Work on our business not in it,’ that’s what we keep reminding each other,” Jodi says.
The Roelands have put a lot of thought into every aspect of their business. What it is and how it fits into the rest of their lives is a basic element.
And there is life beyond the greenhouses. The Roelands children, Mia, eight; Arie, six; Eva, four; Theo, three and Ila, all do swimming lessons in the summer and the three oldest are involved in hockey (Arie) and ringette (Mia and Eva). “They often come to the greenhouse with us and they help out with little jobs and often play in the office while I work,” says Jodi. “Even though they are still pretty young, we try to involve them in our farm business related discussions whenever possible (financial, human resources, etc.) so they can start to build an understanding of what it take to run an agri-business.
“People talk about a factory farm versus a family farm — well, to me, this is our family farm,” says Jodi. “It’s a large scale farming operation but it is still owned by my husband and me, and our children are involved in it, as well. This is our version of a family farm. It’s not what it looked like for my grandparents but it’s today’s family farm.”